MADISON – Election officials in the state’s two largest cities are expanding the use of absentee ballot drop boxes this fall as an influx of absentee ballots is expected and fears mount about delays with mail.
Milwaukee is installing 15 drop boxes across the city — three times as many as it had for the April election for state Supreme Court. Madison will have 14 of them.
In both cities, officials say voters will be able to check an online portal the next day to confirm their ballots were received.
The drop boxes will help voters return absentee ballots faster. A series of changes with the U.S. Postal Service has slowed mail just as election officials brace for a surge in absentee voting because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The post office has cut overtime and taken sorting machines out of service in recent months, which Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has said was meant to save money. DeJoy this week said he was suspending the changes amid criticism and litigation, but at a Friday hearing said the postal system must be overhauled after the election.
The changes have affected mail delivery across Wisconsin. In Milwaukee, seven sorting machines have been or are scheduled to be taken out of service, according to a lawsuit Wisconsin and other states brought against the post office this week.
Two sorting machines were taken out of service in Green Bay, a union representative for mail carriers told WBAY-TV.
And in Madison’s main post office, two sorting machines were taken out of service this summer and a third one more recently, according to John Kieca, who works in maintenance there.
But that third machine was being put back into service on Friday, Kieca said.
Mail in Wisconsin is processed in Milwaukee and the Twin Cities. That means, for example, that an absentee ballot sent from the Madison clerk to a Madison resident is routed through Milwaukee.
Normally, mail sent from Madison to a Madison address would get there in a couple of days, Kieca said. But that has changed recently.
“I’ve seen mail out for 10 days,” he said.
Bob Sheehan, a spokesman for the Postal Service, did not provide details about what was happening with sorting machines in Wisconsin. He referred a reporter to a statement from DeJoy pledging that the Postal Service would be able to handle all election mail.
Postal officials have said voters should expect absentee ballots to take a week in each direction. That would mean voters would need to request absentee ballots at least two weeks before the Nov. 3 election, but clerks are urging voters to ask for them much sooner than that.
The drop boxes will speed up the time it takes to return absentee ballots. However, many voters would still have to rely on the mail to get their absentee ballot in the first place.
It’s up to local officials to decide whether to have drop boxes and the state doesn’t maintain a list of which communities are using them.
But the decisions in Madison and Milwaukee show how interested clerks are in finding ways to make sure absentee ballots are returned. Green Bay has a drop box and Wausau recently installed one outside its city hall.
Some communities, such as Brookfield, have voters return ballots in a drop box that is ordinarily used for payments.
In Milwaukee, the 24-hour drop boxes will be available at city hall, all libraries and a city warehouse. Voters can use them up until 8 p.m. on election day, when polls close.
Details on Madison’s drop boxes are still being worked out.
Mary Spicuzza of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.